The Wisdom of Rocks and Making Time to Create

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Some rocks from  my rock collection. That white rock is from a writing retreat I did in Spain.

I was driving home last night from work thinking of what I’d say in an end-of-the-year blog post. It didn’t take long for me to circle back to early 2017 when I began research for my current work-in-progress, Proxima Five. One of the main characters in the novel is a geologist named Leah Warren. So, first things first, find a geologist to talk to. Plans were laid to meet my friends Darlene and Peggy for dinner at a local restaurant named Sweet T’s. Peggy is a geologist and we share an active love of rocks. We talked over dinner about the geological clock and how slowly it moves. How the youngest rock is tens of thousands of years old. And over the past year as the pace of stories about debacles in our nation’s capital have glutted the daily news cycle I’ve longed for a bit of that geological pace. Wouldn’t it be nice if things just slowed a bit?

But that isn’t exactly where my thoughts ended up on the drive home. Thinking about time came later. What immediately came to mind was the fact that Sweet T’s, a local favorite, is gone. Completely leveled in the Tubbs Fire that raged through Santa Rosa during October. So much happened in 2017. One small crisis after another, culminating with an inferno in October. And this was before the intense fires in southern California later in the year.

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Sweet T’s after the Tubbs Fire of 2017.

Repeatedly during the year, I was grateful to be able to find a respite from reality while writing fiction. However, as I look back, the story of Proxima Five evolved over the last few months, influenced by the reality of our times. A story that began as an examination about what happens when power rules unchecked, became a more nuanced narrative about power dynamics, sex, and culture, about the mechanisms that come to exist in society as a result of those factors.

It’s fortuitous that I would have the opportunity to write Proxima Five. It gives me a place to put thoughts into something constructive. But Proxima Five is an epic shift from my newest book, Love at Cooper’s Creek, due out February 1 by Bold Strokes Books.

LoveAtCooper'sCreekLove at Cooper’s Creek is a meditation on small town America in the Deep South. It’s sweet, hopeful, funny, and heartfelt. The story is partly about running away and at the same time, being found.

“A sense of connection, a sense of belonging washed over Shaw. She looked at Kate who had covered her mouth with her hand. The wet paths of tears were on her cheeks. Shaw didn’t have the language to explain the emotion that crowded her chest. It was as if Charlie had sent her a message of kinship from some other place, some place beyond knowing, beyond words. She couldn’t explain it. The moving monument was like some secret presence of the divine, and in that instant, she knew she’d been loved.” (from Love at Cooper’s Creek)

I guess the moral of this end-of-the-year blog post, if one exists, is that 2017 made me realize how important it is to give ourselves breathing room, breaks from reality to create, in whatever form that takes.

Our studio has a holiday lunch to celebrate the end of the year. As the host of the gathering I always try and have some inspiring quote that I share with the team. This year’s quote was from Mary Oliver and I intend to make it my goal for the New Year. I always tell people, invest in yourself. When I say that I don’t mean financially, I mean, give yourself time.

“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” ― Mary Oliver

Happy New Year.

The End

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My wife Evelyn took this picture.

I finished the first draft of the manuscript for Crossing The Wide Forever today. Weighing in at just over 67,000 words it’s the longest story I’ve written to date.

There seems to be a moment about seventy-five percent into every book that I have written thus far where the whole thing stalls and I worry that I’ve gone off the rails and have no idea how it’s all going to come together. I lose sleep, I fret, I drive my wife Evelyn crazy recapping scenes in the story. (She says not, but I’m sure I do.)

With a fourth cup of coffee in hand, my writing playlist piping in through noise-cancelling headphones and the lights in my studio dim… I write the next 1,000 words. Because you just have to. You have to push through to the other side.

Four thousand words later I crawl into bed, exhausted, frustrated, and dream about the book. Scenes flash through my mind like I’m watching a movie. And then it happens. Somewhere between asleep and awake, at about four o’clock in the morning the whole thing comes together in my head. I can see it all the way through.

In the dark I get up and go downstairs to scribble all of it down on a giant yellow legal pad. My cat Otis is happy. He finally has somewhere to sit. (Cats and paper, what is that?)

I’ve also noticed that every time I finish a book, the minute I type the words “The end,” I’m euphoric. My head feels lighter. I can finally stop worrying about these characters that I’ve been living with for weeks. I’ve gotten them through to the end and they’re going to be okay.

Everyone gets what they need in the end, except me, because now I’m feeling sad. I begin missing those characters. They have more stories to tell.

I email the acquisitions editor Sandy at Bold Strokes Books and tell her I have a great idea for a sequel. Sandy is always kind in her correspondence, so she promptly replies and gently reminds me sequels don’t sell as well. Sigh.

#TheWritingLife

Feeling Good About Letting Go

“Abundance is a process of letting go; that which is empty can receive.”
— Bryant H. McGill

If any of you follow me on Facebook then you know that I posted earlier in the week about getting stuck on the villain character in my current work in progress. Thanks to everyone who responded and just as an update, in case you were curious, I’m unstuck.

I realized this morning while driving to work that part of getting unstuck was the willingness to let go. The novel that I am currently working on for Bold Strokes Books, Birthright, is a story I first started to think about back in 1997. It’s crazy to think that this concept has been sitting around for that long and I’m just now making it real. Basically, I have this “suitcase of ideas.” And yes, it’s literally a suitcase. In it are story outlines, character drawings, names, imaginary maps and references for all kinds of things. Birthright was in that suitcase. And maybe that’s why I ended up getting stuck.

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My suitcase of ideas.

Sometimes I think if an idea ferments for too long you become too attached to certain aspects of the initial concept. In this case I needed to let some things go. I needed to allow this story to evolve into something new, something better.

Secondary characters are now taking more of a lead role. The villain has a second-in-command. Names have changed and the original intent of the story has expanded. All for the better I think (I hope). I realized that by trying to force the narrative to adhere to my original concept I was holding the story back.

Anyway, I just felt like sharing this. As a writer, and as encouragement for other writers and creators, it feels good to let go. Especially when letting go means allowing the characters to move forward with their story.

Defying Convention

Baby Missouri and her granddad.

Baby me and my granddad with the car featured in Whiskey Sunrise.

I’m wrapping up the manuscript for my fourth novel with Bold Strokes Books, Whiskey Sunrise, and I realized last night that I needed to flesh out a few parts of the story. One part in particular is the relationship between the main character and her grandfather. Over dinner my wife reminded me of a photo she’d seen of me and my grandfather working on cars together. She encouraged me to use my own experience to flesh out this particular scene in the book. It seems silly now that I didn’t think of my own experiences with my grandfather as source material. I mean, I’m sure on some level, unconsciously, that’s absolutely where parts of this story came from. But I’d completely forgotten about this one photo of mine in particular where the car featured in Whiskey Sunrise actually makes an appearance in the background. My granddad was an early participant in dirt-track, stock car races in rural Georgia and he always had some hot-rod-in-progress in his garage.

Baby Missouri and her granddad.One of the unique aspects of Whiskey Sunrise is that the grandfather in the story allows the main character to be who she is. He doesn’t try to force her into some preordained female role, he allows her to love cars and drive fast. He expects her to be able to do anything a boy her age could do.

My wife and I wondered whether that sort of child rearing approach was plausible. Whether a grandfather, who grew up in a different era, could raise a granddaughter in this way. That’s when I was reminded of these photos and had to dig them out. I’m even more inspired now to add these details to Whiskey Sunrise.

You never think of your own life as remarkable because you’re in it. You’re too close to it. But thinking back, here was this man who came to adulthood during the Depression, was raised in the very conservative Deep South, who had allowed me to be myself. That’s pretty remarkable.

Baby Missouri and her granddad.
And out of respect for those of you who may not be as into cars as I am, I’ll try and keep the “car talk” to a minimum in Whiskey Sunrise. As is the case with most stories I’m interested in, this one is really all about the characters.

My Writing Soundtrack

Driving into work on Thursday, The Donnas came up on my playlist and I was immediately whisked back to a particular moment in time.

This was the song I was listening to a few months ago when my Z3 got run over by an SUV. I was listening to their track titled, “Take It Off,” and thinking to myself that if Carsen Taite’s character, Luca Bennett, had a theme song, this would be it. I’m on my second drink, but I’ve had a few before… I’m tryin’ hard to think and I think that I want you on the floor.

It was at about that moment that the airbag deployed.

Luca’s favorite lunch is a burger and a beer, and she drives a vintage Bronco, so I’m pretty sure she’d be into The Donnas. Anyone who eats that much red meat and drives a V8 would definitely have this song on her favorites list.

I often link songs to the characters I draw and/or write. Some of the characters in my Jane’s World graphic novel series have theme songs. Take Jill James for example. Her theme song is “Inside Out” by Eve 6. I would swallow my pride, I would choke on the rinds…

Jill tries to present a tough exterior, but inside she just wants to be held. She has a tendency to push people away, which is the opposite of what she really wants: Intimacy.

I have a feeling that VK Powell’s character, Zak, from her book Fever would be a Nirvana fan. I think her favorite track would probably be “Come As You Are.” Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be…

Yeah, I’m reaching back in the archive a bit for this one. But Zak spends time off the grid executing undercover ops so I’m thinking her playlist might lean toward classic rock and vintage favorites.

My drawings of Luca, Zak, and Jill.

From left to right: My drawings of Luca, Zak, and Jill.

The next two characters that I’m going to mention I don’t have drawings for. Yet.

I ran into D. Jackson Leigh this summer and I made her sit down and listen to a song by Garrison Starr that I think her character, Whit, in Hold Me Forever would enjoy. Deb was a good sport. She even agreed to wear my headphones, and listened to all of “I May Not Let Go.” If I hold you tonight, I may not let go…

This brings me to the short story I’m currently working on, The Ground Beneath. It features a character named Sam Casey. For Sam, I’m going to have to go with another song by Garrison Starr: “Sit With Me Tonight.” You don’t have to fix this, sit with me tonight…

Sam has a tendency to spiral into dark places. She gets down on herself. She thinks she’s terrible at relationships, but she really isn’t. The last breakup she suffered was like a gut punch to her self-esteem. An improbable barter deal involving a hope chest and dinners for a month places the lovely Jessica Walker distractingly in the way of Sam Casey’s bachelor lifestyle.

Music matters. At least it does to me anyway, so much so that I’ve built a playlist for writing. I end up doing a lot of my writing during the in-between spaces in my life; at coffee shops, during lunch breaks, late at night. I put the headphones on and two songs into this playlist I’m in the zone. It’s a list of about 40 songs that I listen to over and over and over, to the point where I cease to hear the lyrics and instead allow the music to transport me to a particular place and time. As I’ve listened to this playlist and adjusted the mix, certain songs have begun to identify themselves with specific characters. It’s almost like having a soundtrack for a movie and within that, each character’s theme song.